Use it or lose it… what musicians can teach us.

Marshall Chasin
September 13, 2011

“Older musicians experience less age-related decline in hearing abilities than non-musicians” is the reported finding of a newly published study that will come out in the next issue of Psychology and Aging.  This study was part of Ben Zendel’s PhD study the University of Toronto, just down the street from my clinic.

Ben wanted to find out whether musicians and non-musicians differed in their auditory abilities as a function of age.  And that’s just what he found.  He analyzed the results of a study of 74 musicians and 89 non-musicians of all ages ranging in age from 18-91.  He defined a musician as someone who has been playing at least since age 16, has received at least 6 years of formal musical training, and is still playing their instrument.

Of the many tests, only one was found to show no significant differences and that was the normal pure tone audiogram performed routinely by clinical audiologists.  If you compare the hearing thresholds of both groups, there is no difference but hearing thresholds are a rather blunt measure of auditory function, and also only assesses the peripheral auditory function.

The other three tests showed significant differences- hearing tones in small temporal gaps, detecting mis-tuned harmonics, and listening to speech in noise.  These are all more central tests and purport to assess the function of the auditory cortex.    In short, the musician’s brain is different than that of the non-musician.

Specifically it was found that a 70 year old musician’s ability to correctly identify speech in noise was similar to a 50 year old’s non-musician’s ability.  Auditory decline is inevitable as a function of age but it can be delayed.

The media frenzy around the publication of the article states that this is the first study to demonstrate state this, but this is certainly not the case.  There are a number of auditory and anatomical studies demonstrating the differences between musicians and non-musicians.  For example, the anterior portion of the corpus callosum of the musician’s brain is larger than that of the non-musician’s brain.

And any musician will tell you that they can hear things after their third or fourth ear training course that they couldn’t hear before.  My son always asks whether I heard that Napoleon second or augmented fifth in that last piece of music?  Not having taken 6 years of formal music training, and never having taken an ear training class, I guess that I am a non-musician.

But this says something about the benefits of auditory training for our hard of hearing clients.  Perhaps this study will help to remind us about the auditory benefits of “ear training”.  The auditory changes observed in musicians are perhaps not just for musicians, but for anyone that wants to pursue ear training, or aural rehabilitation. I am pretty sure that the benefits attested to in this study can be extended to the rest of us mortals with appropriate auditory training offered by our audiologist colleagues.

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